At a Feb. 24 state Senate appropriations committee hearing in Harrisburg, State Police Commissioner Col. Frank E. Pawlowski just finished making his fiscal-year-needs case when Sen. Larry Farnese (D, Vince Fumo’s old seat) changed the subject to the rising number of hit-and-runs in Philadelphia.
“It’s of grave concern,” warned Farnese, who noted that he and other politicians, including Sens. Michael Stack (D) and John Rafferty (R) were crafting legislation to bolster penalties for the crime in Pennsylvania, which when compared with other states has “one of the least stringent in the country.”
In Pennsylvania, if a hit-and-run driver causes “serious bodily injury,” it’s a 90-day minimum jail stint. That jumps to a year if the victim dies and five years if the victim dies and the suspect can be proven to have been drunk. For comparison’s sake, the man who struck and killed an American Idol contestant in New Jersey is facing 10 to 15 years.
“They don’t care about the welfare or health of anybody but themselves,” Pawlowski said of hit-and-run drivers. “This kind of behavior is totally unconscionable. That’s why legislation like this is important. Anything you can do to put some teeth into the law with regards to penalties would help.” (Full disclosure: Farnese thanked me by name for bringing sentence disparities to his attention. He took this challenge on despite my having worked on a 2008 campaign to keep him out of office.)
The teeth-sinking process hit Stack’s district last Thursday at Nazareth Hospital right off Roosevelt Boulevard when a Senate Transportation Committee hearing was held to discuss Senate bills 522, 1049 and 1177. All three focus on making drivers think twice about fleeing the scene. Sponsored by Stack, proposal S-522 would hike sentences for drivers who cause serious bodily injury from 90 days to two years and if there are fatalities, from one to five years. Since bill S-1177 covers similar ground, and because S-1049 focuses on DUI involvement, an amalgamation of all three—one that makes a misdemeanor a felony and makes concurrent sentences consecutive—is expected to make its way to Gov. Rendell’s desk should it get House and Senate approval over the coming months. So far, Farnese’s office hasn’t heard a peep of opposition, other than the Department of Corrections’ concerns about overcrowding.
About two dozen people—and several cameras—turned out in the hospital conference room, where mothers recounted the suffering their families have endured since losing their children to fatal hit-and-runs. The State Police, Philadelphia Police (both Commissioner Charles Ramsey’s Office and the Accident Investigation Unit) and the District Attorney’s Office threw support behind the developing legislative changes. I declined an offer to address the committee—I was the victim of a hit-and-run in New Jersey in Nov. 2008; the case remains unsolved—since I was there to cover it for PW. Farnese told attendees that increased penalties would “offer comfort and a sense of justice” to victims and survivors. The hearing bore that out. “I understand that people make mistakes, that accidents happen, but when they know they hurt or killed someone and leave, that’s a crime,” said Theresa Sautter, whose 15-year-old daughter Marylee Otto was killed in a March 28, 2008, hit-and-run. The driver, a prison nurse, was apprehended because she drove the SUV directly to Curran-Fromhold correctional facility afterward. “There are days that I don’t want to go on but I do, for my children and for Marylee,” Sautter said.
Dolores Roberto, whose 12-year-old son Peter was killed on Thanksgiving night 2004 by a driver who’d been drinking since morning, recounted having to wake her husband up to tell him their son was dead. “I will never forget the look on his face,” she said. “To this day, he doesn’t sleep well. He flashes back to getting woken up that day. … Maybe I just give people too much credit, but I still can’t understand how someone can just leave the scene of a real accident.”
Stack, who was spurred on by Sautter’s continuous lobbying for change, responded: “You and Theresa are going to make a difference. This is a matter of life or death, and quality of life, for so many people.”
Like State Police Lt. Jeffrey B. Hopkins, who said suspects running to avoid capture on this, or previous, crime defy the premise that “nothing is as important as the preservation of life.” Enhanced penalties will force people to “think twice before choosing to put their own desires ahead of the needs of others.”
Translation: Stiffer penalties for running will force people to stay and accept responsibility. Philadelphia IAU Capt. Michael Murphy said the department supports the effort “without any reservations.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Assistant District Attorney Michael Barry, on behalf of his boss, Seth Williams. “I can think of no better way to honor victims’ memories than to add some sense to it in the future,” said Barry, who noted that mandatory minimums could work against them, even if the spirit of the bills is pure. “The last thing anybody wants to see in these cases is people to get off scot-free.”